There is no donut headrest involved in a traditional Thai massage. No lullaby lavender-scented oil to lubricate your limbs. Forget the bathrobe and freshly laundered sheets as well. Instead, imagine the last painful neck rub your well-meaning significant other ground into your deltoids and add a pinch of wrestling and a dash of floor yoga.
I had been in Bangkok for less than 48 hours when I decided it was time to track down a reputable spa. The establishment I ultimately selected wasn’t fancy but it was clean and the employees seemed welcoming. I showered, rinsing sweat and street grime from my body, and changed into what looked like hospital scrubs. Despite the fact that I was now wearing more clothes than I ever had for a massage back home, I felt surprisingly naked.
My masseuse, a slight woman who didn’t seem to speak English, motioned me toward a small curtained booth nestled between identical curtained booths. My designated cubicle contained a sheet-covered mattress and a pillow placed atop the wood plank floor. I settled down on my back, crossed my hands across my chest as if in prayer, closed my eyes and willed myself to relax. And then she touched me.
Starting at the base of my left ankle, the masseuse worked her way up the length of my shin, her thumb and forefinger driving down on opposite sides of my tibia. I tend to bruise fairly easily, and my shins are among the most tender parts of my body. With the masseuse’s digits drilling an inch into my skin, I felt my frame levitating an inch off the mattress.
Later, as I lay prostrate on my stomach, my face pressed into the pillow, the masseuse pounded my body an inch into the mattress. I flailed my arms, impromptu sign language for distress, and indicated the pillow was simultaneously breaking my neck and smothering me. In doing so, I broke the No. 1, unspoken massage rule: To avoid unnecessary awkwardness, don’t stare at the masseuse while she’s working. Keep your eyes closed and feign sleep — or, better yet, death.
“How long has she been wearing a surgical mask? I thought, craning my neck around. “Why is she wearing a surgical mask? Should I be wearing a surgical mask?”
The masseuse’s eyes smiled above the cloth. She discarded my pillow and resumed tenderizing my body, first a left body part followed by the corresponding right body part. She beat a fist into each section when done, presumably announcing the surrender of its muscle tissue with a series of hollow thuds.
Once my appendages were pulverized to the masseuse’s satisfaction, she trained her attention on my midsection. I did my best to sag, limply, as she manipulated my arms behind my back, stood on my calves and pulled backward until my torso left
the ground. We rocked back and forth like a demonic seesaw for a few minutes and then she lowered me back to the mattress.
Although the masseuse wasn’t terribly heavy, her perch on my calves suddenly had me worried. Was Thai massage the one in which the masseuse parades up and down the client’s back? I quickly attempted to recall every massage session I had ever seen depicted on film.
Laughter from the adjacent booth broke my concentration; the male customer next door was chatting with his masseuse. Mine was beating me into some sort of sadistic submission and would soon begin tap dancing on my spine. What could he possibly be laughing about?
A potential source of his amusement might have been what my masseuse tried next. As if propping up a rag doll, she arranged me into a sitting position and then kneeled on one leg (her own this time) behind me. She folded my arms behind my head, looped her own arms around mine and proceeded to rotate my upper body like a windmill. For some reason, this particular move seemed absurdly funny to me. I couldn’t suppress my laughter, and she began laughing too.
Something changed between the masseuse and I after that wacko windmill bit. She no longer scared me, and I learned to relax and enjoy the pounding – if only for the exotic strangeness of the experience.
An hour after the massage began, it was over. I gratefully shed my loaned scrubs and donned my own street clothes. Then I hobbled toward the front desk. My new friend was waiting for me. She presented me with a glass of hot chrysanthemum tea, and I presented her with a tip.
I was sore for the next three days, but it might have been a “good” sore. All these months later, I am still not sure.
About the author: Megan V. Winslow is a writer and photographer who recently returned to the U.S. after a 6-month adventure around the world with her husband, Matt. Originally from Florida, Winslow relocated to San Francisco in January. She enjoys hiking, gardening and swing dancing.
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